Patch 17 (realm of arkon.., p.8
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       Patch 17 (Realm of Arkon, Book 1), p.8

           G. Akella
 
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  ***

  I sat perfectly still, transfixed by the vision. The roaring flames, the peals of thunder and sundering rock—all this was gradually receding, yielding to the music of savanna at night.

  You've completed the quest, Duty Calls, Part I.

  You have gained a level! Current level: 2.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 3 stat points to allocate.

  You have gained a level!

  …

  You have gained a level!

  …

  You have gained a level! Current level: 10.

  You have 1 talent point to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 27 stat points to allocate.

  Your character can now choose a specialization.

  You have gained a level! Current level: 11.

  You have 2 talent points to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 30 stat points to allocate.

  Logic would dictate that a quest this high level should have netted me heaps more experience—enough for level 30 or thereabouts, so it must have triggered the hidden "fairness" coefficient that the devs had introduced to counter powerleveling. We also called it the "fartness" coefficient. If memory served me right, prior to the latest patch players were allowed to accept quests up to 20 levels above their character's level. The exception to this were unique quests. The fact that I had been given a quest by a level 500 NPC could only be explained by a quirk courtesy of RP-17, which had mentioned something about a bump in the game's NPCs' intellect.

  Having a friend in the game who was, say, level 100, you could easily accept a bunch of maximum-level quests and knock them out with ease by working in a group. Which would bring you to the same level 100 much, much faster. Or your friend could simply pull a high-level mob while not being grouped with you, and keep aggro while you hacked away at the mob pitifully until it died and you got the experience for its death. This was the reason the fairness coefficient was introduced. To be sure, completing a quest 20 levels higher would certainly net more experience than a same-level quest, but the multiplier was capped at around 1.5 as compared to hundreds—the way it was before the coefficient. The same applied to killing high-level mobs. Of course, players continued looking for (and finding) various loopholes, but those were typically closed fairly quickly by the administration, which aggressively propagated fair gaming. And it wasn't hard to track unusual jumps in levels of certain characters.

  No matter—all great things must begin with the first step. While Altus waited for me to catch my breath and recover from the vision, I quickly opened my character menu. And, without a moment's hesitation, selected mage. I never was drawn to necromancers, and especially not after what I'd seen. To always travel with a retinue of rotting corpses and other filth that reeked as much as you'd expect—find yourself another sucker! The priest class was always in demand for its excellent healing and buffing abilities, but completely lacking in the damage department and hence not very attractive to me. Most players wanted to burn burn burn, so only people of a particular ilk played support classes. I was not among them.

  Congratulations on your selection, apprentice. This marks the beginning of your path to master the power of the elements. Only you will determine where it will take you.

  You've gained the rank of mage's apprentice. You can raise in rank by enrolling in one of Arkon's schools of magic.

  There was no going back now—I was a mage. Now, to allocate stats… the logical strategy was to throw something into intellect, but with my hit points and energy, logic could go screw itself! I added 20 to constitution and 10 to vigor. Talents I left for later.

  "What do I need to do, monsieur?" I asked the archmage sitting across from me. After seeing and experiencing his vision, I didn't want to relate to him as a ghost.

  "Setara, the Goddess of Justice, has hearkened to my request, giving me a hero who will rescue my people and the knights of the order. That there," he gestured at the rock formation, "has been my grave for the past two hundred and eighty years. The demons haven't been able to recover the signet ring enchanted with the Key to the vault. It cannot be looted off the corpse or stolen, but only given away freely. I cannot move too far from my remains—this was the goddess' condition. Only when the signet ring is in safe hands will I finally find rest," he explained.

  You've accessed the quest: Duty Calls II.

  Quest type: hidden.

  Kill Shaartakh and loot the Champion of the Order of the Red Flame's Signet Ring from Archmage Altus' corpse.

  Reward: experience, unknown. Warning! To complete this quest you will need at least 100 allies.

  I let out a mental groan. Why does it always happen that when things finally start looking up, something comes along and smacks you back down to reality?! Where was I going to find one hundred level 170+ players?! Even in Karn I'd be hard-pressed to gather enough volunteers. I could just imagine what was going on there—the panic, people in shock and hardly thinking about raiding. It would take months for tanks to grind their toughness high enough to raid, to say nothing of the other classes. There weren't many masochists capable of enduring even ten minutes of genuine pain.

  "Monsieur," I said, accepting the quest, "what is this creature you call Shaartakh?"

  "When Velial departed from this plane, not all of his creatures followed. Some of them remained here. Demons have thinned their numbers considerably since, but some specimen still live. Those that are particularly powerful and loathsome," Altus scrunched up his face, gazing toward the mountains. "There was a great emission of power during the battle in the gorge. That was how he appeared… Well, what are your thoughts?"

  I patted my non-existing pockets automatically—a Pavlovian response to my nicotine cravings. Realizing the futility of it, I locked my arms to keep them from causing mischief.

  "My thoughts are focused on capturing power in this dominion," I shrugged and, seeing that Altus was staring at me as though I were a halfwit, continued. "Don't misunderstand me, monsieur. I would love to help you find peace and to reunite you with your beloved," I cut right to the quick, "but I stand no chance against Shaartakh on my own… Heck, I couldn't even handle a gopher," I looked around in search of at least one of those rodents, as if they could confirm my words. "And where would I find the people—or even demons—to help me in this quest? Karn is closed to me, just as it is to you."

  "You're going to go far with those smarts," Altus chuckled. "Setara never did forbid me from lending a hand…" The archmage stood up resolutely, whisking up his staff.

  Archmage Altus invites you to join his group.

  Whoa! Last I checked, NPCs didn't have the ability to form groups, or was I missing something? I accepted without thinking twice and jumped off the chair, trying to look as eager as possible. Altus checked out my getup skeptically; then, without lowering his staff, brought his hands together and jerked them upward. A warm wave swept over my body. I glanced at the logs and froze, flabbergasted.

  You are endowed with Archmage Altus' Blessing. Duration: 120 minutes.

  Agility: +500.

  Strength: +500.

  Constitution: +500.

  Vigor: + 500.

  Spirit: +500.

  Intellect: +500.

  It was like I'd gulped down five liters of some energy drink or snorted some kind of super junk.

  "That's more like it," the archmage grunted. "Now quit standing there like a statue and follow me." With those words, he stepped into the blue oval of a portal he'd opened a moment earlier, motioning for me to follow.

  I recognized the gorge where Archmage Altus had made his last stand right a
way. The scatterings of rocks and boulders were all there, only the pine trees and the brush had been replaced by a strange brown moss crawling along the molten hillsides. Catching my eyes, Altus explained:

  "The demons were mainly using area of effect spells. It will be a while before anything will be able to grow here. There," he pointed toward a large brownish boulder about a hundred yards from where we stood, "is where my bones lie. Make sure to stay back and not draw aggro. And another thing," he sighed, "upon attacking Shaartakh, I will become vulnerable. If I don't manage to kill him," he said, peering intently at me, "you're going to have to come back here later. Promise me this."

  "I promise, monsieur," I put my balled right fist to my heart automatically—clearly, I was growing into the role—then nodded and added, "even if I have to make this entire land my bitch."

  The archmage nodded and started forward.

  I continued standing there, swerving my head around in search of Shaartakh, when the large pile of rocks in Altus' path began to move, which made my hair stand on end. Whatever depths of computer imagination this creature had crawled out of, I was beyond certain that artists like me had nothing at all to do with it. The monster looked like the embodiment of the collective nightmares of patients in some mental ward, and a large one at that. Colossal, the size of a rock handler, with a gray mass of tentacles and queer dark tumors, the monster resembled some kind of terrible mix of caterpillar and octopus. Mother of God! Level 473!!! Shaartakh lifted his foreparts off the ground slowly, and soon the monster was was boring the archmage, who'd stopped roughly a hundred feet away, with its three yellow eyes.

  A ripple went through Altus' limpid figure. The archmage threw his arms back and sideways, and, as if a great weight had landed on him, began slowly raising them upward. That was when I glimpsed the transparent vortexes of power streaming from his bones. When Altus' hands reached their apex, the mage cried out something, and a lightning bolt of gigantic proportions struck at the beast with a deafening rumble. The monster's health bar dropped by a whole quarter. With a wild, bloodcurdling yelp, the beast pounced on Altus.

  I felt my insides twist into a knot, and the world went dark in my eyes. It was like somebody were trying to drill into my head through my ear canal. I clutched my ears with my hands, but it was no use. Seeing blood flowing from my ears and running down my wrists, I swore with gusto.

  Shaartakh's Primal Howl hits you with mental magic for 20 damage! 5190/5210.

  Shaartakh's Primal Howl hits you with mental magic for 20 damage! 5170/5210.

  …

  Shaartakh's Primal Howl hits you with mental magic for 20 damage! 4170/5210.

  Your Toughness skill has increased to 32%.

  A hundred yards in front of me, the great mage Kyam Altus was working wonders of the art of sorcery. Surrounded by damage-dealing auras of all the colors of the rainbow, the wailing Shaartakh kept trying to snare the mage with its tentacles, but each attempt ended with triggering a trap, which stunned the beast for several seconds and sent yet another barrage of ice blocks and lightning bolts crashing down on it. At half life, the monster split into three giant cactus-like shapes with trunks in place of branches, and attacked the mage with whitish streaks of power.

  Shaartakh's Primal Howl hits you with mental magic for 20 damage! 1150/5210.

  Your Toughness skill has increased to 33%.

  The AoE damage hit every two seconds. I had no more than two minutes left to live, and that was considering my racial bonus absorbed three quarters of all incoming mental damage. Then six hours at the graveyard… But if I went out of range, I wouldn't get the credit for the quest. What to do?!

  It turned out I didn't need to do anything, as the end came quicker than I could anticipate. In the third phase of the fight, having rejoined all its parts into one whole, Shaartakh swung and missed again. The archmage countered, quick as lightning, by immobilizing his target, then finished off the monster with a boulder overhanging the gorge and a pair of ice blocks.

  You've earned a unique achievement, Shaartakh's Slayer. Shaartakh is a unique boss that can only be killed once. You and your allies have been granted a permanent 5% increase to your physical and magic damage.

  Your reputation has increased. Residents of the Ashtar Dominion are neutral to you.

  What the… I thought to myself in shock.

  You have gained a level! Current level: 12.

  You have 3 talent points to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 3 stat points to allocate.

  …

  You have gained a level!

  You have gained a level!

  …

  You have gained a level! Current level: 17.

  You have 8 talent points to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 18 stat points to allocate.

  Not bad. The archmage's level was much higher than mine, which meant I was getting only a fraction of experience when grouped with him. Still, that fraction was enough for six levels.

  Archmage Altus has removed you from his group. You have lost the two-hour buff, Archmage Altus' Blessing.

  That's right, it's up to me now, I thought on the way to the corpse. The pain had abated, but the smell of ash and ozone had likewise succumbed before the stench of the giant carcass so unbearably foul that I couldn't help but hold my breath as I walked. The fumes blended with the smell of scorched, dead flesh. At least it doesn't cause any damage, I grimaced to myself.

  I stopped ten yards from the brown boulder and sighed, examining the pile of human bones—turned yellow with time and partially covered with soil. The skull wore an enigmatic smile, eyes turned skyward.

  "A wretched sight," said the archmage, gazing at his remains from behind me. "No need to drag this out. Go on, get the signet ring."

  I leaned over and touched the bones.

  Champion of the Order of the Red Flame's Signet Ring.

  Quest item. Cannot be stolen or traded. Does not disappear from inventory with the owner's death.

  I was holding a massive ring made of some strange metal, orange tongues of flame intertwining on it in a peculiar pattern, eerily lifelike. The ring was radiating heat. Clutching it in my hand, I turned to the archmage.

  "So it ends," he spoke solemnly.

  You've completed the quest, Duty Calls II.

  You have gained a level! Current level: 18.

  You have 9 talent points to allocate.

  You've earned the title, "Archmage Altus' Apprentice," which grants a one-time bonus: +5% to all magical actions.

  You received a one-time bonus: +20% to maximum resistance to mental magic.

  You have 9 talent points to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 21 stat points to allocate.

  You have gained a level!

  …

  You have gained a level! Current level: 67.

  You have 58 talent points to allocate.

  Racial bonus: +1% to resistance to dark magic, +1% resistance to light magic.

  Class bonus: +1 to intellect; +1 to spirit.

  You have 168 stat points to allocate.

  I stood there with bated breath, jaw dropped to the floor, watching the lines of text scroll before my eyes. In truth, I'd estimated as much—a quest designed for a raid of level 170+ characters, killing a boss that not a single guild was capable of taking on, and reaping all the benefits. Fifty levels of experience despite the fairness coefficient. If not for it, the quest would have probably catapulted me to around level 200.

  "Students have waited decades to earn the right to be called my apprentices, so you'd better appreciate my trust,"
declared the archmage. "But this will help you find a common language with my team. You should know that Raena is a cast first, ask questions later type of gal."

  "This is a great honor," I said, trying to preserve the solemnity of the moment.

  "Yeah, yeah," he muttered. "By the way, I noticed that your mental magic resistance is kind of low, and you're going to need every bit of it, trust me. So, I've adjusted it a little for you."

  You've accessed the quest: Duty Calls III.

  Quest type: hidden.

  Find the door to the vault, sealed with the Seal of Bel, and open it to release Archmage Altus' free squad and the knights of the Order of the Red Flame.

  Reward: the sword of the slain Champion of the Order of the Red Flame, a truesilver case with an unknown artifact.

  "Tell Saverus to take command of the troops. He knows where the documents are hidden. Return the signet ring to Kan Shyom. Then again, don't—neither he nor any of the Foxes should wear it just yet." The archmage pondered the matter for a moment. "Play it by ear. Take Lars' sword and the case from Kan Shyom. Lars would have wanted his Tear to go to the person who saved his people. As for the ring in the case," the archmage's face assumed the highest degree of seriousness, "its plain appearance is very deceptive, and I would advise against handling it directly. It won't bring my people any good, but you… You should decide for yourself. And that's that," he gave a wistful smile and gazed up at the sky, which was growing rapidly awash with light. "Farewell, my apprentice. The goddess is calling for me."

  "Farewell, master, and thank you for everything…" the last words I spoke into nothingness, as Altus' ghost had already disappeared. No pillar of light, no swarm of sparks. Having been such a great boon to me, the archmage had simply vanished into thin air.

  In the meantime, dawn was breaking in Demon Grounds. The first rays of the morning sun had already penetrated the ravaged gorge, illuminating meekly the sites of two great battles, tracing silhouettes of molten stones and reflecting off the glass-like surface of rock. My heart felt heavy. I realized that Altus had found his long-sought redemption, and might have even reunited with his beloved, but when a person with whom you've developed a deep bond leaves you, it invariably leaves a void in your soul and a bitter taste in your mouth.

  What now? I looked around in search of an exit from the gorge… and realized what an idiot I was. This was a game! Somehow the latest events had blurred the lines between virtual and true reality. Then again, this was now my world, and it operated by the game's rules. Case in point, the rotting carcass of a level 473 monster lying in a lake of slime fifty yards away, reeking like a dozen decaying elephants and likely containing a small fortune.

  Fighting back nausea and shuddering with disgust over the bluish slush oozing into my boots, I waded through to the carcass and touched it. They say that in every player sits a hamster that squeals with delight at the sight of good loot. Well, if that's true, then my hamster's squeal at that moment was like the roar of King Kong after something massive had fallen square in his nether regions. Sixteen pieces of equipment of rare quality and above, around fifty variegated vials, a piece of fabric inscribed with strange glyphs and several burnt-through holes, a plain oval-shaped hand mirror with a handle twice the size of my palm, and over nine thousand gold. With zero strength left to rejoice, I shrugged wearily and mentally pressed the Take All button. At that very moment, my rear end plopped right into the abominable ooze to the shrill ringing of coins exchanging ownership.

  Warning! Your character is 147/12 overloaded and cannot move. Get rid of the excess weight to resume movement.

  Fat chance!

  The worst item on that list was worth at least five thousand bucks! For a moment I even forgot about the stinking, disgusting puddle in which I sat. I opened up the stat menu. One point in strength extended carrying capacity by five pounds. In a regal motion, I threw 94 points into strength and another 10 into stamina, seeing as I'd need to do something about heavy armor anyway. My burden suddenly light as a feather, I rose and headed toward a small spring I'd spotted earlier trickling out of a nearby mountain. I washed off the filth and the caked blood—yet another new element. It used to be that your clothes never got soiled or even wet (you could wade through a swamp and still come out perfectly dry); similarly, blood never flowed and certainly never crusted. At least I'm not cold, I thought to myself, wringing out my rags. I could finally head back to the village and catch a breath. The rabid pace and nerve-racking nature of recent events had taken their toll. Besides, I needed to mull over the catastrophic changes that had taken place in my life.

  "Oh, damn!" I smacked my forehead, then started toward the archmage's bones and collected his remains into my bag. All that was left of the once mighty mage fit into just two inventory slots: Archmage Altus' Skull and Archmage Altus' Bones. My eyes shifted and stopped on a stick that seemed vaguely familiar. I walked over and picked it up.

  You've accessed the quest: Finding the Staff.

  Quest type: epic.

  Deliver Archmage Kyam Altus' staff fragment to the rector of the Mages' Academy in Rovendum.

  Reward: one of four elemental staves to choose from: Scorcher, Giant's Step, Ice Reaper, Peal of Thunder.

  My capacity for surprise had been overfilled. The reward for an epic quest was, at the very least, an epic item. Not only that, I had two quest items in my bag, and who knew what they might turn into? A beast like that wasn't likely to drop anything trivial. RP-17 or whoever was overseeing Demon Grounds must be giving me all these quests because I was here alone. Not that I objected, mind you. Stashing the rune-encrusted and singed staff fragment into my bag, I started toward the exit from the gorge.

  The sloping hill between the gorge and Lamorna was some ten yards high and fifty yards in diameter, with an even peak covered in yellow-brown prickly grass. The ground at the top was hard, and the apprentice's staff made for a bad shovel. Still, after two-three hours of loosening the earth with the staff and scooping it out with my hands, I'd dug a hole about a yard deep. After gently placing the archmage's remains inside, I filled up the grave with earth. I didn't know any prayers, but standing there in silence somehow didn't seem appropriate, so I softly recited a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.

  Before us great Death stands

  Our fate held close within his quiet hands.

  When with proud joy we lift Life's red wine

  To drink deep of the mystic shining cup

  And ecstasy through all our being leaps—

  Death bows his head and weeps.

  Then I fished the archmage's staff fragment and plunged it hard into the ground at the head of the grave. Then I opened the menu and abandoned the Finding the Staff quest. Over the many years the staff had been with its owner, it had become part of his soul and it didn't feel right taking that part with me.

  This felt right—the dead mage and his dead staff put to rest side by side. I put my balled right fist to my heart and bowed my head, then spun around and started briskly toward the nearby village.

  After reaching the bottom of the hill, a gust of warm wind hit me between the shoulder-blades, playful-like, bringing with it a scent of lilies, as my ears picked up sounds of a waltz. I turned around and froze, stupefied, tears forming involuntarily in the corners of my eyes. On top of the hill—suddenly emerald-green with a large branching tree—stood a frail elven female in a jade mantle, a white lily in her chestnut hair, next to a dark-haired human male in a plain waistcoat. The woman's arms were around his neck, and he was looking back at her with a deep intensity, unblinking. The elf turned toward me, smiled and gave a friendly wave. Finding the strength to take his eyes off his woman, Altus followed with a friendly nod and a wink.

  Attention! You have garnered the attention of a higher being. Setara, the Goddess of Justice, is friendly to you.

  You received a racial skill: Setara's Shield.

  Setara's Shield dispels all hostile spells and protects you from all types of damage and curses for
10 seconds.

  I waved back at the vanishing vision, thinking that this world was probably far more than just the one I'd come from, if only because it had an actual goddess of justice.

 
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